Syria needed to be whacked

Opinion Journal:

After five years and six months during which Syria has been an active accomplice to the insurgency in Iraq, the U.S. has finally struck back. Historians will be left to ponder how the course of the Iraq war might have changed if President Bush had acted sooner.

U.S. military sources are confirming that on Sunday U.S. special forces raided a location in eastern Syria that was being used by a network of Syrian military officials and al Qaeda-connected groups to smuggle foreign jihadists into Iraq. The Syrians, predictably, denounced the raid as "an outrageous crime" and an "unprovoked" attack on a "sovereign country."

The Syrians have an interesting definition of unprovoked and a curious notion of sovereignty. Even before U.S. troops took Baghdad, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld explicitly warned that Syria was shipping military equipment to help Saddam Hussein, including night-vision goggles and antitank weapons. Only days after Baghdad fell, Mr. Bush warned Damascus against becoming a safe haven for top Iraqi Baathist officials. "We expect cooperation," he said, "and I'm hopeful we'll receive cooperation." Siding with Secretary of State Colin Powell over Mr. Rumsfeld, Mr. Bush dispatched Mr. Powell to Damascus in a show of postinvasion diplomatic goodwill.

President Bashar al Assad did not reciprocate, and Damascus soon became the capital in exile from which the Sunni insurgency was financed, organized and directed. In late 2003, Cofer Black, the State Department's Counterterrorism Coordinator, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Syria "needs to do a lot more" to stop terrorist infiltration, but added that he "remained optimistic that continued engagement with Syria will one day lead to a change in Syrian behavior."

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Administration hawks urged more forceful action, including Predator missile strikes against terrorist hideouts in Syria. But the CIA and others valued ties to Syrian intelligence, and in January 2005 Mr. Bush decided instead to send then Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage to Damascus to read Mr. Assad the riot act. Mr. Armitage succeeded in getting the Syrians to turn over Saddam's half-brother, Sabawi Ibrahim Hassan, a ringleader of the insurgency. This token cooperation, along with episodic Syrian efforts to police their border with Iraq, served mainly to disguise their ongoing support for the insurgency.

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We wonder how differently the war in Iraq might have gone had the U.S. conducted this kind of raid as often as necessary in 2003 and 2004, or if it had put Mr. Assad on notice that his survival in power was at risk if he continued to support the insurgency. Our guess is that the war would have been shorter, far less bloody for American and Iraqi troops, and less politically costly to Mr. Bush.

There's a lesson in these Bush Administration mistakes for the next President, particularly if he is Barack Obama. The Syrians interpreted diplomatic accommodation in the face of their anti-American acts as a sign of weakness to exploit. Mr. Obama has promised he'll engage Syria diplomatically as part of an overall effort to end the conflict in Iraq. If he really wants to end the war faster, he'll pick up on Syria where the Bush Administration has now ended.

Syria is an example of the failure of policies that Obama favors. I have described Pakistan as a master of doing the minimum to stay on the good side of the US. Syria is a master of the sub minimum.

Their intelligence cooperation can be helpful on occasion, but it does not make up for the bad policies of the government which is in a low grade war with the US and Israel. Syria's war is of a lower grade than Iran's clandestine war with the US, but there is little doubt where its sympathies lie.

What this new approach to the Syrians is really is a return to the original Bush doctrine about attacking terrorist where ever they are.

To get a good idea of where the Syrians are on the issue of helping al Qaeda, you need to look closely at their response to this attack. They are still going with the ruse of civilian casualties, rather than acknowledging that al Qaeda was using Syria to facilitate attacks. This kind of dishonesty tells you where their heart is.

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